Interview with Rick Morton

Cuke Podcast with Rick 🔊

Rick Morton

Interviewed by DC - September 18, 1995

Suzuki Roshi married us in ‘69. He said, "Don't be so serious."

See interview with Carolyn Morton

Jim Morton is Rick's brother

See their wedding photo below.

See ceremonial chair Rick restored for the SFZC. Same one Shunryu Suzuki used.

John Steiner asked Suzuki Roshi about war in Vietnam and Roshi leaped off and started smashing him with the stick. That was when there were peace marches and he said what should we do about the war, we can't just sit can we? and John started smiling and Roshi started grinning. I'll remember that grin and everyone else was smiling and he jumped off and started whacking John and he said that the war is right here on the tatami. He really lashed into him and it was flabbergasting to see. Halpern said he hit him on his ears but he just hit him on the back and the shoulders and he really hit him hard but he was doing it for everybody there.

Once he smashed a stick over Bob Shuman's back outside the zendo and broke it and he said "don't be afraid of the stick."

He was given to spontaneous actions.

 September 19, 1995

 Once Philip Wilson brought a bum in off the street to see Suzuki Roshi and he asked Suzuki Roshi for some money and Suzuki Roshi said no, I know what you want it for, you want it for wine, and the bum said you don't want to help me and Suzuki Roshi said I want to help you but you won't let me. The guy told me after it happened.

I came in the late fall of ‘66. I was at the Art Institute. I had had the most beautiful LSD experience on the East Coast and I came out to California early in ‘66. I went to the Metaphysical Bookstore on Powell Street and Second I believe in SF (the only other places where you could get Buddhist or metaphysical books back then were there, City Lights, and Fields and the guy at the Metaphysical bookstore was a sort of mentor to me for a short while - I'd never thought about anything like that before but I started looking at Yoga books and thought this is incredible but he couldn't understand my LSD experience - he just saw it like I was drunk and he told me about his Yoga teacher and said he'd seen him masturbating once and started to run off and there was his teacher waiting for him in front - he knew his student had been watching. So he decided he wouldn't throw it all away for that. I called up a yoga group and the lady said that the people there were very old - like forty and I said I don't want to be with a lot of people in their forties and so she said to go to the Zen center and someone at the Art Institute said that the people at Zen Center were young and then Rob Gove took me there - actually he forced me to go. He was very aggressive back then and kind of strange and mean too. He used to yell at people when they didn't do things the right way. Now he's just sort of eccentric.

I went to Suzuki Roshi for dokusan and I'd been sitting in zazen and having all these deep experiences and I would wonder if I should tell him but I didn't - I felt that my experiences were very deep and I'd try to turn people on and tell them about the truth and God and everything. When I came to San Francisco I stopped taking drugs - I didn't even smoke pot.

Once Rob Gove brought Suzuki Roshi to the Art Institute. I saw them in the patio and he was in his brown robes just standing there. A lot of people came from the Art Institute: Katherine Thanas, my wife Carolyn (Hail) Morton, Norman Steiglemeyer, Rob Gove.

I went to the first training period on my own and went to another and I kept coming back and telling Carolyn you've got to do this and so she went to the third practice period I did with me. I'd missed some so I could graduate from the Institute. Suzuki Roshi married us in ‘69. He said, "Don't be so serious." I was worried because I didn't know if I was ready and some girls had come on to me at the narrows the day of my wedding. We used to go swimming in the nude back then. There was a big lotus cake for us and Suzuki Roshi kind of ignored me at the time. I always wanted him to notice me and he never would and I thought I had a special relationship with him and I thought Carolyn did too -maybe everyone felt that - I feel like that to this day. But he'd always turn away and say very little good about me.

DC - That's a compliment - it means he trusted you.

Carolyn went on to have some marvelous experiences. But back then Carolyn was a doan and was hitting the mokugyo on the alter and she was so shy and self conscious and Suzuki Roshi stopped everything in the middle of the service and went over and grabbed the mokugyo stick out of her hands and said she was doing it wrong and showed her how to do it. Afterwards she went running up the road crying.

Pat Herreshoff introduced me to Suzuki Roshi - the first time I'd seen him was at a lecture and I asked him a question about LSD and was talking fast and went on and on and on and he just looked at me and grinned and I don't think he answered me because I don't think he understood it - someone leaned over and told me to speak slower.

Shunryu Suzuki, Carolyn and Rick Morton outside Suzuki's cabin at Tassajara on their wedding day, July 14, 1970, (Bastille Day)

Shunryu Suzuki memories from SFZC Alumni retreat of April 2012

Rick Morton and Carolyn Morton interviewed by DC at Tassajara during the April 2012 Alumni Reunion

And he said, "Many times I’ve told you not to deal with the small self." But actually he had never told me in those words, used those words. And I’ve never forgotten that.

DC note: Rick had already done the interview above years ago and spoke during the group discussion at Tassajara. This is something he wished to add to what he said there. Carolyn had a bit to say as well.

RM: My feeling about daily practice around Suzuki Roshi was that I experienced a lot of intimacy and great help and kindness during dokusan, but when I wasn’t in dokusan, he ignored me. And the more I didn’t want to be ignored, the more he ignored me even more. I would see him being friendly with Peter Schneider and other people, and I would wonder -- it just made me feel anti-social and slightly isolated and stuff like that. Only one time, actually, I came back from work, when I was in the City, and I felt so relaxed that I was aware that when I was looking at him I wasn’t trying to penetrate him with my eyes or something, and he just kind of met my gaze. But usually I found it quite difficult to be ignored all the time (laughs) except during dokusan. I really was his student. I started in 1967 and all the way through until he died, I had been around him. But I was never a part of an intimate circle nor did I ever feel that I had an intimate relationship with Suzuki Roshi.

He would answer my questions very accurately. When I was in dokusan I had no trouble talking. It was during sesshin and I was talking about my practice and about zazen. I found it really easy to connect with him about that. When I first started, started at Zen Center and going to Tassajara, he would take a lot of time with me. One time a dokusan lasted for half an hour. He had a lot of stuff to tell me. And I think I remember every single thing that he ever said. Because it keeps coming up all the time.

DC: Well, repeat it then.

RM: One time, this was at Sokoji, during dokusan, I said I don’t feel like I can go on. I just can’t get any kind of emotional -- and he said, That’s because you’re not there yet. And he drew this circle around, and he said you have to go all the way around, and then you come back to the beginning. Something about you have to stop. I just remember that one little thing. That was like 1966.

DC: But you said you came in 1967.

RM: Yes. That was a dokusan I had at Sokoji

DC: But you said you came in 1967.

RM: Yes. That was a dokusan I had at Sokoji--

DC: Oh you mean you came to Tassajara in 67.

RM: I came to Tassajara in 67/

DC: When did you come to Zen Center?

RM: 1966. I came to Zen Center in 1966. I came from the East Coast, I came from the University of Vermont and I was 22 years old.

DC: What year were you born?

RM: 1944.

DC: What day?

RM: January 25th. Aquarius.

DC: Tell me something else you remember that he said. That was neat.

RM: Said to me or said to anybody?

DC: Whatever strikes your fancy.

RM: We had a Shosan Ceremony. I asked him some little thing--I don’t remember. He said, "Many times I’ve told you not to try to deal with the small self." I was complaining, and kind of saying, I can’t do that--I almost can remember what I said--it was a recurrent theme in my life at that time. A recurrent complaint. And I tried to ask him how I should deal with that. And he said "Many times I’ve told you not to deal with the small self." But actually he had never told me in those words, used those words. And I’ve never forgotten that. What did he mean by the small self, or by trying to deal with it. I was having a problem with my self and with my mind, and my character, and my character flaws. I felt like there were things I had to correct in myself. And I was trying to correct it by practice, I thought.

DC: So what he said you felt like spoke to that?

RM: Indirectly. I couldn’t exactly--I had to think about it a lot, over the years. It is not something I could have ever expected. I had to try to think about what he meant by that. It seemed so all-encompassing that it included every complaint I ever made, about myself, or how I wanted to be different or better, or whatever. I was unhappy with myself, anyway, and that’s what he said.

Something else. I told you that he always ignored me, even when I wanted to have something to say, on a friendly basis, he would kind of just walk off and leave me. He was very remote. I found him to be remote most of the time around us and around me. Really around us. One time I was at 300 Page Street. He was coming down the hall. Sometimes it’s awkward if you see somebody coming towards you at a distance away. I was at one end of the hall and he was at another. He came, and I bowed, and he did what I think is an exact imitation of my bow. It was like--since there’s no video, I can’t really show you--but he just went like this.

DC: He bowed sort of short--

RM: Yeah, he put his hands over to one side, and he did a thing like that.

DC: A little jerky bow.

RM: A little tiny jerky bow, and his mouth was open a little bit like that. After I passed him, I was thinking, Oh my god, this is how I bow. So that isn’t something he said to me, it is something he demonstrated to me.

DC: More!

RM: I do have a lot of things, but I can’t really remember them now.

DC: You can always e-mail me. We talk about it but you never do it. I always beg you to get your brother--

RM: I guess I could work on him.

DC: Yeah, work on him! Get hold of me, we’ll corner him.

CM: OK. This is Carolyn Morton.

DC: Very good!

CM: First off I wanted to say, there is a tendency to mythologize Suzuki Roshi. Although he was wonderful, I thought. Just meeting him, I had never met anyone particularly maybe like a father or grandfather age person, who had so much dignity and kindness. So that was a real eye-opener. But I think we want to put somebody on a pedestal, mythologize them. Like I said before, I thought Katagiri also had a tremendous influence, and was a part--such a different personality, very humorous, in a different way. And more accessible, I thought. And also Suzuki Roshi, I remembered, also did not speak to me except in dokusan. I think he didn’t speak to me at all except in dokusan. But once I was at Page Street, and I think Rick was in the room too, in the dining room. This was only a few months before he died. He came in the dining room and he looked very gray, just his color was terrible. I was kind of looking at him like a puppy with its nose pressed to the glass or something. He walked over and there were his usual circle of people surrounding him; kind of like what Rick said--I felt like such an outsider. But he stopped and said "You know I love all of you, but there is one I love best, that I never talk to." And of course I thought--well maybe it’s me, you know! But I think that said a lot. The room was full of people.

RM: Was he looking at you when he said it?

CM: I was looking at him when he walked in, and he walked past me--he did glance at me. I was kind of like, Oh please talk to me! You know how you just want some acknowledgement. Anyway, I do remember that. I know you have the Suzuki Roshi website, but you did write a lot about Katagiri in your book, which I really loved. I thought you captured a lot about him very well.

DC: Anything more?

RM: One time, I was there with a couple other people, and he said--he was quoting some other Japanese teacher--how you don’t want my bones, you want my marrow too. Then he said, Sometimes that’s what I think about you all. You don’t just want my bones, you want my marrow.

CM: I was in the room when he said that.

DC: How did you interpret that?

RM: That we, as a Zen Center, we were trying to get his life essence out of him and capture it for ourselves. That we wanted to possess him.

DC: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily interpret it that way. That’s a traditional way in Zen to talk about wanting to get to the heart of the matter.

RM: I don’t think that’s what he was talking about. He told my brother--he said, They won’t even let me die in peace.

CM: I was in the room when he said that. I think that was at Page Street, in the dining room.

RM: That’s where it was.

CM: He said it in a rather angry way. So I didn’t interpret it as a Zen teaching! A traditional Zen saying.

RM: Anger doesn’t really express it. I felt that he was more grim when he was saying that. It wasn’t that he was angry at us; it was just that he was in pain as he was saying it. I was surprised by it, because I never thought that he thought that. I’d see him palling around with Peter and everybody, socializing...

DC: One thing I’ve noticed is that you all have continued.

Both reply: Yeah.

DC: Are you involved with any group?

RM: We sit with the group that Steve Stucky started--the Dharma Eye Zen Center.

DC: Yea, I saw you there.

CM: We sit at home. Not every day but pretty regularly.

RM; It kind of reminds us of Zen Center when it was first getting started.

CM: Because it’s small.

RM: It was very small. Everybody knew each other.

DC: The key thing to me that that you continued. You said you wanted to sort of balance what other people said with something more negative or something, but you seem to have assimilated it; it didn’t discourage you.

RM: No, it was encouraging; it wasn’t discouraging. But it was painful. It is painful to feel isolated when you want to get companionship.

DC: And I mentioned to you--I don’t know about your particular situation, but in general I associate Suzuki Roshi ignoring people with people that he felt were more advanced in a sense, and he didn’t need to buddy-buddy with them. He would do things like--with Dick Baker, Philip Wilson, with Reb--of just not talking to them at all, ignoring them completely like for a year. He never did that with me! More--anything else? Well, just e-mail me! When you say you remember everything he said--well just give it to me.

RM: I say that, because when Steve talks or something like that I always remember what Suzuki Roshi said at a certain instance at a certain talk--something will come back to me. Then I realize how much I remember, but not all at once. It’s just that it informs your practice and your experience in a vast way. You know, I started when I was 22 years old. I feel like my concept of practice has completely been formulated by things that I remember Suzuki Roshi saying. I have built on that mentally, even though subconsciously.

CM: For me it’s like the combination of Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi and also Chino Sensei being here. I feel like it was so great when they were all here at once.

DC: And Yoshimura Sensei. Katagiri’s role, as you mentioned yesterday, was enormous. He was like a co-teacher with Suzuki. He is sort of forgotten and doesn’t get enough credit. He felt that way, too. He was really tired of playing second fiddle and wanted to get out of there. People didn’t realize it.

CM: I did.

DC: A lot of people didn’t realize it. And Suzuki seemed to be oblivious to it. But Japanese, a lot of times they don’t show anything; they don’t say anything. OK. Shall we wrap it up?

RM: I don’t think my brother’s told you a lot of stuff.--carried him down the stairs in his arms.

CM: Jim?

RM: Yes, when Suzuki Roshi was dying. I think Jim has told me--one time Jim carried him down the stairs in his arms--

DC: What did he carry him down the stairs for?

RM: Because he couldn’t walk.

DC: Where was he going?

RM: I don’t know. He was going from one floor to the other. At Page Street. Shortly before he died. Jim’s had--I would say he had an intimate relationship with Suzuki Roshi over the years. But he doesn’t talk about it much.

DC: Well he says that; he says he had it. He definitely makes a point of it. And then he says, I’ll tell you later.

CM: That’s Jim!

DC: Like I told you I found an old e-mail or note from him saying he would fax more later.

CM: It’s funny because Jim loves to talk.

RM: He’ll talk for hours. Do you have Skype?

END [There's on brief interview or email from Jim Morton, linked up top, and a long interview done in August of 2012 on the way. - DC]

[ Transcribed by Layla Smith 11-12]

Ceremonial chair Rick restored for the SFZC. Same one Shunryu Suzuki used.